If you’re hunting for an off the beaten path destination in Germany, look no further than the Ore Mountains, my friends! Particularly if you love exploring the outdoors. In winter, the Ore Mountains are a snow-covered winter wonderland popular with winter sports enthusiasts. In summer, this lesser-known mountain range (the Erzgebirge, in Deutsch) is quiet but beautiful- covered with pine forests, wildflowers, and all the butterflies.
Bavaria’s way less dramatic, but equally as pretty sister. If you will.
What are the Ore Mountains?
The Ore Mountains are located on the border of Germany and the Czech Republic. As you might guess from the name, the mountain range has a long mining history, right the way through from the Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution. These days the crossed hammer and chisel motif are emblazoned across all sorts of buildings and signs as a reminder of the region’s past.
The Erzgebirge region is also known as the ‘Cradle of Christmas,’ thanks to the numerous Christmas traditions that began life here. Nutcrackers, Christmas pyramids and candle arches are all crafted in these mountains, as well as wooden figurines of angels and miners which are sold at Christmas markets throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. The people of the Ore Mountains are hugely proud of their mining heritage, and folk festivals and miners parades are a regular occurrence here. They also have their own dialect- Ezgebirgisch. So be prepared to get a bit confused if you’re expecting to hear classic German-speak.
Ich spreche kein Erzgebirgisch.
Where to stay in the Ore Mountains
We decided on the little hamlet of Schellerhau, which is on the very outskirts of the bigger town of Altenberg.
After the hubbub of Hamburg, Berlin and then Dresden, the tranquility that surrounded us when the bus left us in the hamlet of Schellerhau was astounding. At the end of August, the sky was a solid block of blue and the fields and trees were bright green; add the very quaint wooden houses to the mix and it felt like we were in a storybook.
A storybook set in roughly 1992, but still, very much a storybook.
As a popular winter vacation spot in Germany, the Ore Mountains has no shortage of pensions and guesthouses to choose from. Don’t get me wrong, there are more luxurious options available. But I definitely recommend keeping the retro dream alive and going for one of the quaint family-run spots instead.
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We chose Zum Silberstollen, a hotel which consists of several wooden lodges scattered on a hill; half timbered houses with steep wooden rooftops to keep the weight of the snow off in winter, with colourful shuttered windows, and net curtains hung in every window. Our apartment had a tiny balcony built out of chunky wood, with a view of approximately 50,000 pine trees. And if you thought there was a lot of wood on the outside, the inside of each of the individual apartments is entirely panelled with EVEN MORE WOOD.
It’s all so…wooden! In a brilliantly nostalgic way. Kind of like a German version of the summer camp in The Parent Trap. I loved it.
Breakfast and dinner is served on a pretty patio with a beautiful view of the forest, or inside the main house in a room filled with nutcrackers, wooden miner figurines and cuckoo clocks. And the food is cooked up freshly by the owners, a friendly German couple with strong Saxony accents and a whole load of regular returning guests who they seemed to personally know.
Did the wifi only work whilst sitting in the actual sauna? Why yes. Yes it did. My O2 phone signal was also fully off limits in the area.
But how cool is it that there is a sauna here in the first place? And how doubly cool is it to have some phone-free time!? Just one of the perks of staying in an off-season ski destination. And we weren’t there for the internet, we were there for the Great Outdoors.
Hiking in the Ore Mountains
The Ore Mountains are a great location for hiking in Germany, with numerous pathways weaving their way across the countryside. In winter, many of these pathways are actually routes for skiers, and I loved looking out for the ski signposts, surrounded by long grass and flowers instead of a blanket of snow.
We strolled through thick forests and across bright green meadows, past tiny gardens growing pumpkins and hundreds of flowers attracting hundreds of butterflies. (And seriously, the butterfly contingent was truly astonishing. I take my hat off to those butterflies, they truly know how to put on a show.) In late August the weather was so beautiful that we spent a whole load of time outdoors, and met many hikers old, young, and in-between, doing the exact same thing.
For ideas of hikes in the Erzgebirge region, check out OutdoorActive.
Outdoor activities in Altenberg
Of course as a pair of pals from England and America, we didn’t know all that much about the Ore Mountains. Or even about Saxony as a whole. (Soz Saxony, no offence there.) But plenty of Germans know all about this lovely location, and Altenberg is actually as popular in summertime as in winter.
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There are plenty of campsites around the town, which fill up around the summer holidays with families looking for fun times. The ski slopes might not be covered in snow, but there are still plenty of activities to delve into. The Altenberg Ski and Toboggan Arena is still used throughout summer, with a toboggan run to speed down whatever the weather. During summer, the ski lift transports riders on go-karts to the top of the mountain, so they can rattle back down on wheels instead of skis. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool. There’s also a swimming lake in Altenberg, which is completely natural but manned by lifeguards- so it’s a hugely popular spot for families.
Exploring the town of Altenberg
With absolutely no idea of what to expect from this obscure little town, our expectations were rather low; which led to us being pleasantly surprised by what we found. There’s plenty of evidence of Altenberg’s normal role as a winter sports hub, not just with the ski lifts whizzing go-karters up the gentle mountain slope overlooking the town, but also with the bobsled and skeleton track which is clearly kind of a big deal.
Once we passed the ski lifts on the main road through town, we were in to older, quainter, and much brighter territory. Several of the houses or restaurants here are painted in vivid colours, with proud spidery lettering displaying words in German across them. Wooden angels, miners, and Christmas candle pyramids were placed outside and in windows- basically all the ‘Cradle of Christmas’ paraphernalia that has its home in the Ore Mountains. Plenty of bikers come through the Ore Mountains whilst exploring Central Europe, and in summer motorbikes were parked in clusters outside a large yellow guesthouse on a corner, the owners chillaxing in full leathers in the sunshine.
Down one narrow street we found a window filled with a model of an old mine, with small miners at different levels up and down mine shafts. With one press of the green button next to it, the mine shaft came to life; miniature miners hummed along tracks to collect tin, copper and silver and bring it to the surface. It was like being in Duloc. You know the scene!?
A fairytale cafe
Adding to the strong sensation that we were in an actual 1990s storybook, let me direct your attention to one of the most retro cafe experiences I have ever had. Cafe Buntes Hausel is right at the bottom of a ski lift, looking out towards the main road.
This kitschy fairytale themed cottage is painted in the same pallette of reds, blues and yellows as some of the other buildings in Altenberg, but the key difference is the addition of the mock-gingerbread cottage attached to the front, complete with wafers for window shutters, a giant basket of baked goods, and two equally giant rosy-cheeked bakers. Round at the back of the building is an out of use Santa’s Grotto, with a stack of discarded old sledges heaped at one side. Plastic elves burst out of the roof.
Well I am drawn to these kinds of places like a moth to a flame, so naturally we sat down for a coffee in their garden. (Us and about 35 wasps. Wasps love it in Germany, honestly.)
Inside, the little cafe is filled with teacups, saucers and teapots swinging from the ceiling, with large nutcrackers standing guard in the corners. A must-see if you’re ever in Altenberg, I’m a true fan.
Do you need a car to visit the Ore Mountains?
No. No siree. Of course, it’ll be easier to get from A to B with a car, however we explored lots of Saxony without one.
Public transport in Saxony is extensive, and really easy to use. If you’re heading from Dresden to Altenberg (or Schellerhau, like us), catch a bus next to Dresden Hauptbanhof. You’ll need number 360. The journey takes around an hour and ten minutes, and costs €9 per ticket. For bus timetables in Saxony, head to the VVO Navigator.
For lovers of the quirky and the outdoors, the Ore Mountains is the perfect off-the-beaten-path location in Germany. It’s understandable that Altenberg and its surrounding area is so popular with families, but as a couple of pals just wanting a few days of non-city sounds, we enjoyed every second of our stay.
- You’ll find English speakers here, but it’s definitely not as commonly spoken as in a big city like Berlin or Hamburg. Some knowledge of German would definitely come in handy just in case.
- The accent in Saxony is a notoriously intriguing one! Kind of like the German equivalent of Liverpudlian. Have your listening ears prepared.
- Carry some cash on you at all times. In Germany there are plenty of shops which don’t take cards at all.